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Poems can be pets

Ninety-four per cent of poetry, like 94% of every other thing out there, is rubbish. Most of what’s poetry written by living people is just outpourings without any sense of craft or intelligence, writes Indrajit Hazra.
By Indrajit Hazra
UPDATED ON JUN 01, 2013 10:23 PM IST

Do kids read poetry any more? Hang on. Let me start again.

Do people read poetry any more? I mean, poems written by living poets and not just by dead ones that have gone through the spin-cycle of textbooks, of epigraphs at the beginning of books, and of overuse? (I’ll shoot the next man who uses ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’.)

Ninety-four per cent of poetry, like 94% of every other thing out there, is rubbish. Most of what’s poetry written by living people is just outpourings without any sense of craft or intelligence. Either they are the bored housewife’s ruminations on life or the emo teenager’s hormones finding a flotilla of adjectives to see them sail through puberty.

Do I read much poetry written by living poets myself? No. Very rarely. My infrequent scrapings with such poems come about mostly when I am collared by a few lines quoted in a book of prose or when someone’s put a poem up on Facebook. On FB, it’s mostly the lovely dead stuff that’s strung up or uploaded or whatever. So imagine my shock, even horror, at the prospect of what I may have been missing out on, when I started reading Adil Jussawalla’s book of poems, The Right Kind of Dog (Duckbill Books).

This is from ‘When First I Walked’:
“I cut my nails
but winter took my toes.
Their shoes repaired,
my feet ran like wounds,
ran on, but waited for me
further up the road.”

These aren’t just words placed dexterously to describe a scene or a feeling. It’s a poem that describes in just enough detail something that can’t possibly be felt, even as it provides the illusion of standing in for a feeling you can get — such as the one you experience a few seconds after you’ve finished reading these lines.

Jussawalla goes right into the heart of nostalgia as he pretends to go inside the head of a kid when he writes in ‘The Good-For-Nothing’, “How do I learn to be good/ who am good for nothing, thinks the boy,/ rejected over and over/ for reasons he can’t understand.” And then he steps out of the mental into the observational: “He presses his face against glass/ to make it look uglier.” For a kid to relate to these words is easy (even as it’s very hard for him to probably write them down — that is, if he cares to write them down in the first place). But for a 73-year-old to dive deep into the memory of a feeling he may have got 60-odd years ago and to lay it out like a trout is breathtaking.

The poet is aware of the state of poetry (and of poets) in ‘Our Poets and Their Inspiration’. But instead of taking the pathli gali and bemoaning the fate of poetry (not to mention of poets), he lets the fluffy dog of irony out to bite poets, including himself, in the ass. After a short litany of the poets’ woes, we get these lines: “Having served its time, a body of print,/ unprisoned,/ stands in the doorway,/ open-mouthed, gulping fresh air,/ expecting a garland/ and a laddoo.”

You think that’s the end to a fine, sharp poem. But actually there’s a loooong pause in the form of the facing page which is blank except for one no-need-to-hold-your-breath-anymore line at the bottom: “But nobody’s there.” Jussawalla deserves a garland and a laddoo and a tailor-made bout of winter in June just for this.

Reading poetry requires skill (the patience comes from acquiring the skill). While you can skim-and-dive, skim-and-dive while reading novels, essays, short stories, non-fiction and (especially) newspapers, you have to hold on to every word and line while crossing a poem. A momentary eyes-off and you can plummet to the icy depths of a mid-finished enterprise. Jussawalla tells the reader in a letter at the beginning of The Right Kind of Dog that he imagines most of the people holding the book “to be young, not more than fifteen years old”.

I have forgotten what it is to be 15. But like Warner Brothers cartoons that are always pitched a bit higher than the age group they are targeting, this slim, precious book should make kids enter a world that even if they won’t fully comprehend, will give them hope that the written word of grown-ups isn’t always boring and bereft of fun. (Parents: reading poetry enhances cognitive skills in kids. Fact.)

But I don’t care if this book is for children, midgets or poets on the run. Despite knowing that he’s a wonderful living poet — frankly, because I was told that he’s a wonderful living poet — I had never read Jussawalla. Going by the law of averages, I’ll now seek out his earlier stuff and hope they’re almost as good as this one.

I’ll leave you to deal with your own kind of heatstroke with one last Jussawalla poem, my favourite, from this beautiful, words-sewn book. It’s called ‘Three Ships’:

“I christen this sea ‘Ship’,
its passengers garlands and ashes.
I christen this sky ‘Night’,
its black sail stretched to the limit.
I christen this morning ‘Morning’,
ship without outline, glorious.”
Glorious.

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